Big mailbox a stumbling block in Amazon Bessemer election rerun
During last year's high-profile union vote, an Amazon-branded tent cloaks a mailbox outside the company's warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. | Retail, Wholesale And Department Store Union

BESSEMER, Ala.—There’s a big gray labor law-breaking stumbling block in the Amazon warehouse parking lot in Bessemer, Ala., and the workers campaigning for unionization in the scheduled rerun union recognition vote there want it removed.

The company-sponsored mailbox.

When National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Atlanta Regional Administrator Lisa Henderson tossed out last year’s election loss by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) at Bessemer, she specifically cited the mailbox Amazon execs convinced the Postal Service to install in its parking lot.

The mailbox was right in front of the main warehouse door and monitored by at least one of the 1,100 cameras Amazon installed in and around the warehouse, whose area equals the size of several football fields.

The mailbox, the Amazon banner above it, the “vote here” sign, the cameras and company monitoring all combined to irreparably skew the vote by giving the appearance of Amazon control of the balloting. That broke labor law, Henderson decided. She ordered the mail ballot rerun among the warehouse’s 6,143 workers. New ballots will be mailed February 4, with results to be counted March 28.

But the mailbox remained, and Amazon just moved it to another site in the parking lot, still in view of the cameras, two leaders among the workers, Darryl Richardson and Jennifer Bates, told reporters on January 2. That day, RWDSU demanded the board change its election order and oust the mailbox.

“We cannot be more clear: We need to have the mailbox removed,” Richardson says.

RWDSU’s campaign to unionize Bessemer is important to workers nationally for several reasons. One is it’s the new flagship in unions’ long drive to organize workers in the labor-hostile Deep South.

It also would be a big breakthrough against the monster warehouse and retail firm, controlled by the richest person in the U.S., multibillionaire Jeff Bezos. He pumped millions of dollars into union-busting against RWDSU in the last drive.

And a third is RWDSU’s prior campaign shone a bright national spotlight on awful working conditions at Amazon, worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, and the plight of low-paid workers nationally. Many of them, as at Bessemer, are workers of color. RWDSU also drew national support, up to and including Democratic President Joe Biden.

The Bessemer organizing drive also prompted unionization campaigns at other Amazon warehouses, including Staten Island, N.Y., Gage Park in Chicago, and Cicero, Ill.  And the Teamsters have set up an entire division to create an Amazon-wide organizing campaign.

Amazon has also illegally fired other workers for union advocacy. At least one such case, in the Indianapolis suburbs, is open, NLRB records show. The latest illegal firing case was filed on January 21, by NLRB’s Brooklyn regional office, which covers Staten Island.

Back in Bessemer, Bates and Richardson are more confident of winning this time, even though turnover at the warehouse has been 50% in the year since the last vote. And that’s even facing the mailbox problem.

One reason: The national publicity about Amazon and the warehouse—and the working conditions—have sensitized new hires, most of them in their 20s. “And we’ve got more employees involved than the first time. They’re coming forward and participating,” Bates says.

“I talk to” new hires “about their future, about being able to stand up and have a voice, and about not being misled,” Bates adds. “If their mommas and grandmammas” haven’t discussed Bessemer with those new workers, “then I’m their mother,” so to speak.

Another is Amazon hasn’t really changed its tactics in campaigning against the union, but this time, due to the past publicity, workers—old and new–know what to expect. The only difference is the so-called “captive audience” meetings.

Last campaign, when union-busters would harangue the workers, the workers didn’t talk back. Now, they do—or rather, they try—, Bates and Richardson say.

The harangues go so long that workers get to ask a question or two, at most. And when pro-union advocates “are calling them out” and challenge lies about unions, Amazon shuts the meetings down, Richardson says. “They want to have the room under control.” Adds Bates: “If they don’t want to talk, there’s something they don’t want you to know.”

Meanwhile, the union organizing committee has multiplied in numbers and RWDSU has branched out to contacting workers elsewhere in Bessemer and its environs, the two say.

There is one other change at the end of the company-mandated “captive audience” meetings, though. During the first drive, Amazon set out lanyards and “vote no” buttons on tables by the room’s sole door and noted which workers didn’t pick them up.

Now, Bates says, “Amazon started giving out sneakers, candy, and peanuts like we’re little children.”

As for the mailbox, “NLRB’s solution was to move it to another part of the parking lot. How is that a solution?” Richardson asks. “More of us know what that mailbox stands for.” Says Bates: “It’s a symbol of Amazon’s abusive power. We want to show no one is above the law.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).